Does the constant chanting of 'Bharat Mata ki Jai' mean women are coming into their own?

Will India move from Bharat Mata ki Jai to respecting womens struggles for justice
Voices Gender Tuesday, April 05, 2016 - 21:17

By Cynthia Stephen

For almost the whole of March there has been controversy around the chanting of the slogan “Bharat mata ki jai”.  Does this mean that woman power is somehow coming into its own in today’s India? What role has the ‘common woman’ (as in the ‘common man’) played in the affairs of the country?

One of the most recent and most iconic representations of Bharat Mata has been Radhika, mother of Rohith Vemula, the PhD scholar of University of Hyderabad who committed suicide in January this year, hounded by the system which withheld his scholarship for months and threw him and four others out of the hostels. The event plunged students in Indian into ferment, with countrywide protests, including Delhi, Kerala, Karnataka, Tamil Nadu, West Bengal and Maharashtra. When issues got precipitated again in the University of Hyderabad in the last week of March, she was back at the University gates, insisting that the Vice Chancellor, who had been on indefinite leave and who made a sudden comeback into the saddle – be arrested forthwith for complicity in the suicide of Rohith, under the PA Act. There are desperate attempts to prove that Rohith was not a Dalit but was an OBC since his father was from the Vadder caste. This is a ploy to undermine not just the case filed under the PA act, but the struggle of Radhika against all odds including child labour, child marriage to a violent and abusive partner, and separation and single motherhood at a young age. She undertook domestic labour and tailoring from home to make ends meet and put her three children through their college education. Now the administration is negating her sacrifice by declaring that Rohith was not a Dalit!

In a country that is famous for the low social status and violence-filled lives of its women, it is women like Radhika and Chanderpati who, by placing their faith in the state, the courts and who uphold the rule of law, which actually give credibility to the institutions and hope to the millions who struggle for their rights against a notoriously insensitive sensitive system. Who is Chanderpati, you ask. The Times of India calls her “Mother Courage” for taking the khap panchayats to court and getting the first ever conviction in India for the so-called ‘Honour Killing’ of her son Manoj and daughter-in-law Babli, at the hands of her own relatives. The couple had been in love and got married in 2007 against the local tradition which bans marriages among persons belonging to the same ‘gotra’,  who are considered siblings. Following a community conclave, the Khap panchayat of the area carried out a brutal murder of the couple. It was Chanderpati’s determination to see justice done that ensured that seven of the villagers were convicted for the killings, and received the death sentence. The 2010 judgement was a landmark, the first ever conviction for honour killings in the country, widely perpetrated to enforce feudal practices and usually in retaliation for intercaste marriages between Dalit and non-dalit young people. It came in less than three years, in itself a record for the murder trials in India.

Another mother, Neelam Katara comes to mind. She fought a powerful politician, D P Yadav and his sons in court for 13 years to get a conviction for the Yadav boys who killed her son Nitish in 2002 for being friendly with their sister, in what again turned out to be an honour killing. She also became an activist and a source of support to other families in similar struggles.

This account of women whose lives and trials made a difference to women all over India would be incomplete without the mention of three others : Mathura, Bhanwari Devi and Shahbano. The brave and strong Mathura, a minor adivasi girl chose to fight her custodial rape in a police station in interior Maharashtra in March 1972.  The sessions court acquitted the accused, but Nagpur High court, on appeal, convicted them and handed down sentences of one and five years respectively to the two. The accused then approached the Supreme court and they were acquitted in September 1979, the court remarking that as she was “habituated to sexual intercourse”, she might have incited the policemen, who were drunk on duty, to engage in intercourse. The judgement was noted by law professors Upendra Baxi, Lotika Sarkar and Raghunath Kelkar, and Vasudha Dhagamwar who wrote an open letter to the Supreme Court protesting the judgement. A number of organization picked up the issue and  countrywide protests, including many newly formed women’s groups were successful in generating widespread opinion against the nature of the rape law of the times, which was then amended and made a little more woman-friendly.

Bhanwari Devi, a Dalit from Rajasthan, was gang-raped, and her husband beaten unconscious, and was socially boycotted in September 1992 for carrying out her duties as a women’s rights worker, and reporting a child marriage to the authorities. Despite reporting to the police station in time following the rape, the officials failed to collect evidence, thus leading to the judicial process going totally against the petitioner. The case was lost in the district court and after much pressure from women’s groups, the government appealed the judgement in the High Court. Years rolled by, and five judges came and went. Finally 15 years later, after two of the accused were already dead, the Rajasthan High court acquitted the defendants, and made remarks which were very adverse. Bhanwari Devi, who on the one had was widely appreciated for her bold and courageous stance faced a severe social backlash, financial problems and a hostile political set-up. But the importance of the case is that as a result, some women’s groups approached the Supreme court to get guidelines to protect women from being sexually harassed at their workplaces, called the Vishaka guidelines in 1997 and which have now been formally drafted into the Prevention of Sexual harassment of women at the Workplace Law 2013.

The Shahbano case was a landmark judgement too. She was 62 and a mother of five when she was divorced and sent out of her home in 1978 by her husband who had married a younger woman. She approached the court and was awarded a maintenance of Rs. 25, which was enhanced to Rs.179 by the Madhya  Pradesh High court, where she had filed a revision petition. However, her husband Ahmed Khan approached the Supreme Court asking to be set free from the obligation to maintain her. The Supreme Court, after holding hearings by a two judge bench, referred to a larger bench and finally passed a very progressive order upholding the right of maintenance of divorced Muslim women in 1985 However,  this judgement did not stay for long as other actors including the All India Muslim Personal Law board, and other interested parties agitated and pressurized the government to address what was seen as an attack on the rights of the minority Muslim community to practice their traditional Personal laws. As it was an election year the then Prime Minister, Rajiv Gandhi, quickly passed a law that restored status quo ante and in effect nullified the progressive and positive impact of the Supreme Court judgement which upheld the right of Muslim women to maintenance.

Thus the law of the land has been challenged, extended and enriched by the personal sacrifices and struggles of the women of India, whether mothers or not.  In recent years, the active and qualitative participation in grassroot-level governance has changed the total atmosphere in the villages which is now opening up to the leadership of women in the Local bodies in the village, taluk and district level panchayats.

So will we in India see woman power go from being just chanted as a slogan : “Bharat mata ki Jai”  and begin to enter into a lived reality  in all spheres of life anytime soon?

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